It Matters When the Military Engages Civilian Elites

It Matters When the Military Engages Civilian Elites

In his Commencement address at Duke University’s graduation ceremony on Sunday, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered the customary encouraging remarks to the graduates.  But I was most taken with how his well-calibrated remarks reinforced some important civil-military principles. You can skim through the webstream of it here (the speech begins at 1:15:18). Dempsey is a Duke alum, having received an MA in English on his way to a teaching stint at West Point early in his career. As one of the more successful and influential Blue Devils, he was an obvious choice for commencement speaker — but as a serving military officer, he was a less-obvious choice for a school like Duke. 

Even so, in my opinion, it was an inspired choice.

Duke is precisely the sort of institution that should deepen its conversation with the armed forces. The university has an active ROTC program, but a small one. Yes, there are a growing number of veterans using their GI Bill to get degrees at Duke, but their numbers are a tiny fraction of the overall student population. Importantly, they are dwarfed by the growing population of international students. Like most elite universities, Duke now recruits globally, and so when the military interacts with Dukies — or with any other school in the top tier of research universities and liberal arts colleges — the military is interacting not only with the future civilian leaders of the United States, but also the future civilian leaders of other key countries.

Most Duke students do not have a personal or family connection with the military. As the World War II generation passes from the scene, this trend is likely to intensify. Fewer students will have grandparents, parents, or siblings serving in the military, and so what they know about this vital institution will come from what they consume from the media or what they learn from professors, who are even less likely to have a military connection. If they can interact with the military in the course of their education — taking courses with veterans or active duty officers getting professional education, doing exchanges and visits to military bases, and, yes, even hearing the occasional set-piece speech like the one that Gen. Dempsey delivered, these students will find it harder to hold onto myths. (Loyal Shadow Gov readers may remember that I made similar points when Secretary Bob Gates came to Duke to speak back in 2010.)

Full disclosure: I was the faculty sponsor for Gen. Dempsey so I was hardly a disinterested observer. But even so, I was impressed by how many students, parents, and faculty commented favorably on his attendance. Many also were struck by his decision to decline the customary honorary degree, on the grounds that an active duty public official should not garner private honors will in public office. I understand the thinking behind this decision, but I think it might have been an over-abundance of caution: The awarding of honorary degrees to public officials is so well-established in American culture and it doesn’t seem all that corrupting. (Of course, perhaps I am doubly biased on this since one of the consequences of declining the award was that I, as faculty sponsor, got booted off the dais and sat with the rank-and-file professors!)

Setting all that aside, I most appreciated two things that Gen. Dempsey said.

First, he found a way to acknowledge the military without giving them undue praise or making them seem to be better than those who have chosen the civilian path. He invited the newly commissioned Ensigns and 2nd Lieutenants to stand for recognition, but this was in the context of a fairly long list of shout-outs. He directed the graduating students to reflect on what folks their age were doing at the same time but around the world in Afghanistan — but not in a way designed to make the graduates feel guilty about not serving. The contrast with, for instance, this speech by Gen. John Kelly — to an admittedly different audience — is telling. Gen. Kelly unhelpfully stoked a sense of military moral superiority, an attitude that poisons civil-military relations.

Second, he found a way of talking about some controversial things — American exceptionalism, the heavy price paid by the military in over a decade of war, and the drift towards isolationism, among others — in ways that challenged without triggering knee-jerk reflexes amongst the audience. He tied all of that together with two ideas that he intertwined: trust and "making it matter." He pointed out that the military does what it does because of the trust each of the members develop in each other. And, most poignantly of all, he told the graduates about a box he keeps on his desk with laminated cards representing each of the soldiers who died in Iraq under his command. On the box, he has written the words, "make it matter."

The challenge Dempsey gave to the Duke graduates is a good one for all of us: Make it matter. A great deal has been sacrificed to bring us to where we are today. What can we do to make that matter?